As part of the #WomenLawyersoftheACT series, WLA ACT had the privilege of speaking with Dr Suzanne Akila, Assistant Director in the Sea Law and Antarctica Section at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, about opportunities and the law.
You’ve had an amazing professional journey: from your role as a prosecutor for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (WA), to your work abroad for Amnesty International with the International Justice Team, to your current role as Assistant Director in the Sea Law and Antarctica Section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Did you always envision your career progressing in such a manner?
I was a busy little beaver in high school and university – I knew I wanted to be an ‘international lawyer’ and that I wanted to study further, but not more than that. I threw myself at opportunities to intern and volunteer during my law degree. My vision over time became clearer and I became a prosecutor as a foundation for work in international criminal law. Since then, I have tried to understand work as a process and progress in itself, rather than the achievement of a vision. This attitude has allowed me to take things up as they come and to make the most of each opportunity. I have to say, all the work I have done has been a privilege – it’s been dynamic, challenging and rewarding.
In 2012 you received the Sir Roland Wilson Scholarship, which provides full pay scholarships for EL1 and EL2 Australian Public Service employees to complete a PhD research program at the Australian National University. Can you tell us a little bit about this opportunity, and where it ended up taking you?
I was awarded the scholarship in the inaugural year of the programme and it has been one of the most transformative things I have done. My PhD examined the way in which States, with the support of non-State actors, protect their citizens abroad. I compared the approach of three States: Australia, Germany and Mexico. My scholarship enabled me to spend some extended time in Mexico and Germany, including as a visitor at the Max Planck Institute of International Law. I interviewed a range of people in those places, as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, the USA and the UK. In addition to the physical destinations, my PhD also took me to an important intellectual place where I was able to explore the way in which legal principles manifest themselves in the real world. I also was the beneficiary of supervision from Professor Hilary Charlesworth – an experience of immeasurable value.
At WLA ACT, we believe in affording as many women in the law as possible the opportunity to excel. One way we do this is by partnering with the Women in Law Organisation mentor program, which pairs professional women in the legal sector with women law students. Could you tell us about a mentor you have had over the years who has empowered you?
I am lucky to have had many wonderful colleagues and mentors who have guided me. My PhD supervisor, Professor Hilary Charlesworth, or another academic supervisor from UCL, Elizabeth Wilmshurst. Professor Michael Wesley, a board member of the Sir Roland Wilson Foundation has always encouraged me to think dynamically about my career, and Bill Campbell, my former supervisor at the Office of International Law empowered and supported me at work and during my PhD programme. One mentor in particular, Stacey Nation, brought me into the International Law Section at DFAT in 2015. She is a smart, supportive leader who lifts her team up. She put me forward for a range of interesting and challenging work and equipped me with the skills to perform at a high level. She models the humour, humility and honesty you need in a mentor, and embodies the intellect and quick-wit of a diplomat and lawyer. She always has time to talk and never ceases to give thoughtful and sound advice.
As someone who has worked across the public sector and studied extensively, what else do you think our employers and universities could do to ensure more women stay in and progress in the law over the long term?
It seems that many work places are moving towards flexible work arrangements that enable everyone, not just women, to engage in work in a more dynamic way. One thing that may contribute to retaining more women in the law is for employers to enable men to take responsibility for parental/caring duties, for workplaces to support flexible work and to create a culture where this is the norm. Employers also need to be conscious in their hiring practices and to make adjustments to ensure that women and people from CALD backgrounds are appropriately represented – not simply in an ‘organic way’, but in an active manner that results in diversity and acknowledges talent in those who may not be the obvious choice.